When the subject of robots taking over jobs comes up in conversation, people usually think of repetitive jobs such as those on an assembly line where placing or welding one part repeatedly means using the exact movements over and over again. Simple stuff for a robot, which is why so many of those jobs are gone forever.
Yet robotics researchers are overcoming hurdles in more complicated tasks.
Think of the last time you watched someone make a pizza — the kind where they toss and spin and knead the dough into a pan. This looks rather simple, but for humans (and, potentially, a robot) it requires spatial, visual and touch abilities that are quite complicated. Anyone (including a robot can) simply mix the dough. But getting it to the size and thickness required for a pizza requires, among other things, senses of pressure and the ability to judge the length and thickness of a malleable object.
Some researchers at the University of Naples (where they know good pizza) are overcoming these dough-y obstacles, and their doing so has profound implications for a dizzying array of tasks once thought immune from takeover by artificial intelligence:
“Preparing a pizza involves an extraordinary level of agility and dexterity,” says Siciliano, who directs a robotics research group at the University of Naples Federico II. Stretching a deformable object like a lump of dough requires a precise and gentle touch. It is one of the few things humans can handle, but robots cannot—yet.
Siciliano’s team has been developing a robot nimble enough to whip up a pizza pie, from kneading dough to stretching it out, adding ingredients and sliding it into the oven. RoDyMan (short for Robotic Dynamic Manipulation) is a five-year project supported by a €2.5-million grant from the European Research Council. Like a human chef, RoDyMan must toss the dough into the air to stretch it, following it as it spins and anticipating how it will change shape. The bot will debut in May 2018 at the legendary Naples pizza festival.
RoDyMan has been working this spring toward a milestone: stretching the dough without tearing it. To guide the robot, Siciliano’s team recruited master pizza chef Enzo Coccia to wear a suit of movement-tracking sensors. “We learn [Coccia’s] motions, and we mimic them with RoDyMan,” Siciliano says.
This strategy makes a lot of sense, says robotics researcher Nikolaus Correll of the University of Colorado Boulder. He has modeled flexible motion with rubber springs but was not involved in Siciliano’s research. “Someone who’s learning how to make a pizza would use feedback from their hands,” he adds. “You’d just take the dough and start pulling and try to experience it.”
You can read the rest of the article from Scientific American here.